A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti
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"I think we are going to have a good time," one of the others said as they went forward. "We ain't likely to capture anything very big in this cockle-shell, and I look upon it as a sort of pleasure ship."
"You will see, if he gets a chance he will take it," one of the men from the Orpheus said. "I was with him in that fight against the pirates, and I tell you I have never been in anything hotter. I was one of those who volunteered to go with him to drown the magazine of the brigantine next to us, and I tell you I never felt so scared in my life. He was just as cool as a cucumber, though he had been knocked silly by that explosion a quarter of an hour before. He is the right sort, he is; and though I expect he has got orders not to tackle anything too big for us – he is not the sort of chap to run away if he can find the smallest excuse for fighting."
In the meantime Nat had gone below with the two midshipmen. The accommodation for officers was excellent. There was a large cabin aft which had been handsomely fitted up by the late captain. Off this on one side was his state-room, on the other those for the two officers; beyond these were the steward's cabin and pantry on one side, and a spare cabin which had been given to the quarter-master on the other. Nat had engaged a negro as cook, and his son, a lad of seventeen or eighteen, as cabin steward, and had sent on board a small stock of wines. He ordered the boy to open a bottle and to put glasses on the table, and they drank together to the success of the cruise. They had just finished when the quarter-master came down.
"The admiral is signalling for us to send a boat to him, sir."
"Lower the gig at once!" and he and the officers followed the quarter-master on deck. "Mr. Lippincott, you had better go with it."
In half an hour the midshipman returned with a despatch. Nat broke the seal. It had evidently been dictated by the admiral to his clerk, his signature being at the foot.
News has just arrived that the French Assembly has cancelled the act placing the mulattoes on the same footing as the whites, and the former have in consequence risen and have joined the blacks. The situation must be most precarious for whites in the island. Get up sail at once and make for Cape Fran?ois. Cruise between that port and the south-eastern limit of Hayti. Do what you can to aid fugitives.
"We are to be off at once," he said to Mr. Turnbull. "Please get up the anchor and make sail. There is fresh trouble in Hayti; the mulattoes have joined the blacks."
The quarter-master's whistle sounded, and the crew sprang into activity. The capstan was manned, and the men ran to loosen the sails, and in ten minutes the Falcon was on her way.
"Matters were bad enough before," Nat said when, having seen that the sails were all set and everything in good order, his two officers came aft. "A few mulattoes, overseers and that class, rose with the negroes, but the great bulk of them, having got what they wanted, joined the whites or stood neutral; but now that they have thrown in their lot with the blacks the prospect seems almost desperate.However it turns out, there is no doubt that the island is ruined, and the whites who were lucky enough to escape with their lives will find that instead of being rich men they are penniless. It is a horrible business altogether. I shall be glad when we get to Cape Fran?ois and can get news of what is really going on."
Nat was delighted at the speed shown by the schooner. The breeze was light, and she felt the full advantage of her added spread of canvas. She was a very beamy craft of light draught, and scarcely showed a perceptible heel under the pressure of the wind, fully justifying his opinion as to the improvement to be effected by the substitution of iron ballast for that which she had before carried. Turnbull and Lippincott were no less pleased, and the whole crew felt proud of their little craft.
"She can go, sir, and no mistake!" Turnbull said, as they stood aft looking upwards at the sails and down into the water glancing past her sides. "It would take a fast craft indeed to overhaul her; her sails are splendidly cut!"
"Yes, I tipped the man who is at the head of the sail-making gang a five-pound note to take special pains with them, and the money would have been well laid out if it had been fifty times as much; for it will make the difference of a point at least when she is close-hauled, and that means getting away from a fellow too big for us, instead of being overhauled by him."
"Yes," Turnbull said with a smile, "and might enable us to keep out of reach of his bow-guns, while we hammered him with our stern-chaser."
"Yes, it might have that effect," Nat replied with an answering smile. "What is she going through the water now, quarter-master?"
"A good seven knots, sir."
"That is fast enough. The Orpheus would not be making more than six in such a light breeze as this."
Towards sunset the wind fell until it scarcely seemed that there was a breath on the water, but the schooner still crept along at two and a half knots an hour, although her sails scarcely lifted. The crew had already been divided in watches. Turnbull took the starboard, and Lippincott the larboard watch.
"I hardly know myself," Nat laughed, as they sat together in the cabin after dinner. "Except when I was on the sick list, this is my first experience of not having a night watch to keep. However, I expect I shall be up and down, and at any rate call me if there is the slightest change in the weather. We know what she can do in a light wind now, but we won't risk anything until we have seen how she carries her sails in a sharp blow."
Somewhat restless under the extent of his responsibility, Nat was on deck several times during the night. There was, however, no sign of change. The Arrow was still stealing through the water with the wind abeam. The two midshipmen, equally impressed with the responsibility of being in command of a watch, were on the alert, and the look-out was vigilant. The wind freshened again when the sun rose. At noon there were white-heads on the water, and the schooner, heeling over a bit now, was doing nearly nine knots. The three officers all took an observation, and to their satisfaction found that they were within half a mile of each other. At the present moment, however, there was no doubt as to their situation, for the high land near Cape Dame Marie lay clearly in sight over the bowsprit, while behind them the hills over Morant Point lay like a dim haze.
"If we had had this wind the whole way," Nat said regretfully, "we should have been well in the bay by this time. Still, we must not grumble; we have made a hundred knots. The mid-day gun fired just as we got under way, and, considering that for twelve hours we had no wind worth speaking of, I think we have done very well. Indeed, if the wind will hold like this, we shall be near port by noon to-morrow; but we can't reckon on that, it is sure to fall before sunset, and besides, the winds are generally baffling and shifty when we once get into the bay."
By three o'clock the wind had already begun to fall, and by five they were lying almost becalmed off the westerly point of the island. For the next two days the wind was very light, and it was late in the afternoon of the second when they dropped anchor off Cape Fran?ois. Nat at once went ashore, and as usual received a warm welcome from the Duchesnes. Madame had now quite recovered from the effect of her adventure, as also had Myra.
"I did not know that the Orpheus was in port, or else we should have been expecting you."
"She is not in port, madame. I arrived in his majesty's schooner Arrow, which I have the honour to command."
"Then you are Captain Glover now? I must be very respectful," and Myra made a deep curtsy.
"It will be a good many years before I shall have the right to be addressed by that title. I have passed my examination as lieutenant, and have now acting rank, which will no doubt be confirmed by the authorities at home, and I may be addressed as lieutenant without any breach of etiquette. Still, of course, it is a grand thing to get a command, and so much greater chance of distinguishing oneself. However, as she is but a small craft, and carries only twenty-five men, we are not in a position to do any great thing in the way of fighting, though of course we may overhaul and capture some of these native craft that are nominally traders, but are ready to capture any small vessel they may come across. My mission really is to obtain news of what is passing in the island. We have received word at Kingston that the mulattoes have risen and joined the blacks, and I have been sent off at once to learn the real state of things."
"Unhappily the news is true," Monsieur Duchesne said. "There have already been several fights, in some of which we have got the best of it, in others we have been driven back to the towns. It is impossible for the look-out to be darker than it is. It seems to us that our only hope is that England will consent to take over the sovereignty of the island, and send a force large enough to put down the insurrection. Some of the planters here have already lost heart, and have sailed for Jamaica, Bermuda, and other British ports. I have no intention of following their example at present. I am, as you know, a merchant as well as a planter, and although, of course, all trade is at an end now, it must spring up again in time. Fortunately, we feel confident that this town can resist any assault. The French man-of-war that came in after you sailed landed a dozen of her guns, and we have erected four batteries. There were, too, a good many old guns in the town, which have also been put into position; and as we have half a French regiment here, and fully five hundred whites who can be relied on, we have small fear of being overpowered. I am glad to say that before the man-of-war left, the great majority of the negroes were expelled from the town and their quarter burnt down, so that we have no fear of being attacked from within as well as from without. That was really our greatest danger, and has been hanging over us night and day ever since the beginning of the rising."
"Are the mulattoes and negroes acting together?"
"In some cases, but as a rule they keep apart. There is no love lost between them, and the only bond of union is hatred of us. The blacks, curiously enough, have declared against the republic, and call themselves the royalist army. They consider, and very naturally, that the republic, while giving rights to the mulattoes, has done nothing for them, and therefore, as the republic has declared against the king, they have declared for him. Do you think that the English government will accept our offer to transfer ourselves to British rule?"
"I do not see that they could do so, sir. At present we are nominally at peace with France, although everyone sees that war must come before long, but until it is declared we could scarcely take over a French possession; nor do I think there are anything like troops enough in our islands to undertake such a serious operation as this would be. Your people could not give us much help. The negroes, though calling themselves royalists, are fighting only for liberty, and would gain nothing by a mere change of masters, knowing as they do that the slaves are certainly no better treated in our islands than in those of France."
"That is what I thought," Monsieur Duchesne said. "Certainly nothing short of an army of thirty thousand strong could hope for success, and I doubt, indeed, whether in so large and mountainous an island even that number could do much. Of course fully half of it is Spanish, which complicates matters a great deal; but we may be sure that if the negroes of this end are successful, those under the Spaniards will very soon follow their example. If the worst comes to the worst, I shall of course leave the island. Whether I should settle in one of your islands or make England my residence I cannot say. Some of my countrymen have gone to America, but I should put that out of my mind. I think I should prefer England to remaining out here, for there might be similar risings in Jamaica and elsewhere; as to France, it is out of the question.
"France has gone mad. I know that many of our good families have sought refuge in England, and we should at least find society congenial to us. Happily, we are in a condition to choose for ourselves; my ancestors have been wise men, and have long foreseen that what has actually occurred might possibly take place. Each in succession has impressed his views upon his son, and it has become almost a family tradition among us, and one upon which we have often been rallied. For with few exceptions all here seem to have regarded the state of things as being as unchangeable as Scripture says were the laws of the Medes and Persians. If this had been only a tradition, and had not been acted upon, it would not have benefited us now, but for six generations each of my ancestors has regarded it as a sacred duty to set aside nearly a tenth of his revenues as a provision when the troubles should come. This money has been chiefly invested in England and Holland, and the interest on the accumulations of all these years has been reinvested. I believe that, although I regard such investments as were made in France as lost, we shall, when we reckon up matters, find that our income will be fully as large as that which I have drawn from my property and trade here."
"I am very glad to hear it, Monsieur Duchesne. I have indeed, while I have been away, thought very often of what would happen to you and your family if you were forced to finally abandon your estate and leave the island."
"I have reason to be grateful indeed, Nat, to the forethought of those who have gone before me; it is strange that the same idea did not occur to others. One can see now that our people here have been living in a fool's paradise, totally oblivious of the fact that a volcano might at any moment open under their feet. Are you going to remain here?"
"Oh, no! I am only making this a starting-place. My orders are to cruise along the southern coast, to render any assistance I can to the refugees, and if possible, to open communications with some of the chiefs of the insurgents and endeavour to find out what their plans are, and, should it be decided to accept the cession of the island when war with France breaks out, what the attitude of the blacks and mulattoes would be."
"You will not be likely to pick up any refugees, for the whites are exterminated except in the towns; but should any of the smaller places be attacked you might render good service by receiving at least the women and children on board."
That evening Monsieur Duchesne asked his brother-in-law, the doctor, and several other leading inhabitants, to his house, in order that Nat might gather their views. He found that these in the main agreed with those of his host, except that they were hopeful that France would, as soon as the news arrived, despatch an army of sufficient force to put down the insurrection. After the last of the guests had departed, Monsieur Duchesne shook his head.
"France will ere long require every soldier to defend her own frontiers; the saturnalia of blood in which she is indulging will cause her to be regarded as the common enemy of Europe. I hear that already the emigrant nobles are pressing the various European courts to march armies into France to free the king and royal family from their imprisonment by the mob of Paris, and ere long there will assuredly be a coalition which France will need all her strength to resist. England is certain to join it; and even had France troops to spare, she would find a difficulty in sending them here. So you will not change your mind and stay with us for the night?"
"It is already nearly eleven, and I ordered the gig to be alongside at that hour. I certainly should not like to sleep out of the ship, though I have no doubt that my two young officers would see that everything went on right."
On reaching the schooner, Nat found that both Turnbull and Lippincott were still up.
"It was such a lovely night that we have been smoking on deck until a few minutes ago; we were, of course, anxious to hear the news."
At Nat's order the steward brought hot water and glasses; three tumblers of grog were filled, and they sat for a couple of hours discussing the strange situation in the island.